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In an apparent reversal of commitments to overhaul of the House of Lords, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and his team are reportedly weakening the party’s plans for an elected second chamber, amid criticism from unelected members of the upper house.
According to the Guardian, the party is set to postpone its delay its goal of replacing the Lords with a fully elected second chamber, despite Sir Keir throwing his weight behind proposals from former PM Gordon Brown last year.
The initial commitment for a fully-elected chamber is being shelved to prioritise key legislative objectives, the paper reported, including implementing a “new deal” for working people.
At the heart of that push is scrapping zero-hours contracts and elimination of qualifying periods for basic employee rights, such as sick pay and parental leave.
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Only a year ago, the Labour leadership was vocal about its dedication to a radical overhaul of the second chamber within the first term. Gordon Brown’s Commisson on the UK’s Future, published with Sir Keir last December, pledged: “We propose a root and branch reform of our centre of government. To create a new and more responsive centre we must clean up Westminster, rooting out unearned privilege and addressing unaccountable power.
“That is why we put forward detailed proposals for abolishing the current
undemocratic House of Lords, the fundamental reform of which has been the official
goal of successive governments for a century, and replacing it with a democratic
chamber that is permanently closer to the British people.”
But several shadow cabinet sources tell the Guardian that moving to a fully-elected second chamber now appears too difficult and would take too much political capital and time.
Labour is now apparently poised to consider a narrower scope of amendments to the unelected house, including limiting the number of peers from its current 800, bolstering the authority of the House of Lords Appointments Commission (which vets nominees), and “possibly” phasing out the 92 hereditary peers remaining,. The aspiration for a fully elected second chamber hasn’t been abandoned, but it does seem to have been kicked down the road as a now “long term” goal.
The Lord Speaker, John McFall, a former Labour MP, has been prominent in his attacks on sweeping Lords reform. He’s used media appearances to advocate “incremental” changes to the chamber, a view that is gaining traction among the Labour high-ups – and apparently influencing the climbdown in ambition.
While a Labour source played down the Guardian story, a pro-reform Labour peer said they were concerned by it, telling Byline Times: “I never thought for a minute [an elected Lords] would be a first term [priority]. But I didn’t think it would be dumped from the manifesto.”
It has also come under fire from other opposition parties. The Scottish National Party’s Tommy Sheppard MP said: “It’s increasingly clear the only change the Labour Party is capable of offering is changing their minds every five minutes.”
Labour has also ruled out more powers for the Scottish Parliament, instead focusing on devolution to local councils and mayors.
“Sir Keir Starmer is now ditching his pledge to abolish the House of Lords in order to stuff the place with Labour donor and cronies. Westminster does not – and will not – offer the change Scotland needs. The system is broken, and cannot be fixed,” Sheppard said.
Tom Brake, director of democracy group Unlock Democracy added: “If Labour is scaling back plans to reform the House of Lords to make time to address our calamitous voting system, which is the biggest obstacle in the way of tackling long term issues, like climate change and the cost of living crisis, then we can live with this.
“Sir Keir was spot on when he said ‘millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their vote doesn’t count’ and ‘I’m utterly convinced about this: the Westminster system is part of the problem.’ We now need to see his plan of action to address this.”
Many other activists have hit out at the changes. Klina Jordan, Chief Executive of Make Votes Matter, told Byline Times the row-back was “worrying.” “The public, Rishi Sunak, and even Keir Starmer himself have identified that Westminster isn’t working.”
Recent polling for Make Votes Matter found that only 1 in 25 people thinks the UK’s political system needs no reform at all. However, similar polling by Opinium for the group showed that the public sees proportional representation for the Commons as nearly three times more important. Jordan hopes that the shift away from Lords reform will focus Labour minds on the need for PR.
And Jessica Townsend, co-founder of activist coalition MP Watch branded Lords reform “the mildest” change Labour could put forward: “Voters are clear that our democracy isn’t functioning and the reputation of politics is at an all-time low…We also hope that the Angela Rayner plans which stemmed from the Brown Report recommendations to improve integrity don’t get similarly sidelined.”
But Liz Crosbie, Project Director at reform campaign AllianceNow UK noted that of all the challenges to UK democracy, House of Lords reform is the “hardest to popularise”.
Gordon Brown’s constitutional commission, launched after a long delay last year, was reportedly instructed to avoid talking about electoral reform for the Commons. That shifted the focus to devolution and Lords reform.
Crosbie called for “citizen-led reform” instead of a top-down approach. “The days of grandees and Royal Commissions are over.”
However, a little-noticed change at the Labour conference in Liverpool earlier this month saw delegates vote by an overwhelming margin to ratify the National Policy Forum document – which will feed into next year’s Labour manifesto – containing strong criticism of the current “flawed” voting Westminster system – a driver of “distrust and alienation” in politics.
It is the first time in a generation that Labour has condemned Westminster’s voting system, following a major grassroots and union campaign.
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